Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home

20.3.09

Ahmed Zuhair, a 35-year old Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo — and a father of ten — has been on a hunger strike since June 2005, at the start of a fraught summer at the prison in which up to 200 prisoners (over a third of Guantánamo’s total population at the time) embarked on a mass hunger strike in protest at their ongoing — and seemingly endless — imprisonment without charge or trial, and also as a protest against the day-to-day conditions in the prison, where casual brutality was still widespread, and a severe regime of punishment was still in place.

This regime had been instigated by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the prison’s commander from November 2002, whose approach to dehumanizing the prisoners, and making every shred of comfort in their lives dependent on their perceived cooperation with the interrogators, impressed Donald Rumsfeld to such an extent that, in the fall of 2003, he sent him to Iraq to “Gitmo-ize” the prison system there, leading directly to the implementation of the sadistic regime that was exposed when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004.

There was a brief hiatus in the hunger strike in August 2005, when the prisoners were allowed to form a very short-lived Prisoners’ Council. This secured some concessions from the authorities, including an increase in the amount of food they were given, and the implementation of a new system of punishments and rewards, which brought to an end the exclusive use of orange uniforms, and the introduction of a graded system that gave white uniforms to “compliant” prisoners, and tan-colored uniforms to those who were somewhere between “compliant” and “non-compliant.” However, the authorities failed to effect major changes to how Guantánamo was run, and, after another violent incident, when an interrogator threw a mini-fridge at a prisoner during an interrogation, the mass hunger strike resumed, and was even more widespread than it had been before.

Illegal force-feeding

The authorities responded, as they had with the many other hunger strikes throughout the prison’s ignoble history (most of which had been prompted by abuse of the Koran), by force-feeding prisoners who refused to eat, even though medical ethics have long prohibited force-feeding mentally competent hunger strikers, recognizing that it is often the only manner in which they can make protests about the conditions of their confinement. By January 2006, the strike was finally brought under control when the authorities imported a number of restraint chairs to make sure that it “wasn’t convenient” for the strikers to continue, as Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the US Southern Command, explained to the New York Times.

In conversations with their lawyers, prisoners explained how the restraint chairs worked. Emad Hassan, a Yemeni, said, “The head is immobilized by a strap so it can’t be moved, their hands are cuffed to the chair and the legs are shackled. They ask, ‘Are you going to eat or not?’ and if not, they insert the tube. People have been urinating and defecating on themselves in these feedings and vomiting and bleeding. They ask to be allowed to go to the bathroom, but they will not let them go. They have sometimes put diapers on them.” Another prisoner, the Bahraini Isa al-Murbati (released in August 2007), told his lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, that, after he refused to be force-fed voluntarily, “soldiers picked him up by the throat, threw him to the floor and strapped him to the restraint chair.” Colangelo-Bryan added that his client explained that, after he was “fed two large bags of liquid formula, which were forced into his stomach very quickly,” he “felt pain like a ‘knife in the stomach.’”

Prisoners also explained, as the Times described it, that “medical staff also began inserting and removing the long plastic feeding tubes that were threaded through the detainees’ nasal passages and into their stomachs at every feeding, a practice that caused sharp pain and frequent bleeding.” They added that, until that point, “they had been allowing the hunger strikers to leave their feeding tubes in, to reduce discomfort.”

As indicated above, Gen. Craddock had a different appraisal of the situation, telling reporters that soldiers began using the chairs “after finding that some were deliberately vomiting or siphoning out the liquid they had been fed.” “It was causing problems because some of these hard-core guys were getting worse,” he said. “The way around that is you have to make sure that purging doesn’t happen. Pretty soon it wasn’t convenient, and they decided it wasn’t worth it.”

As a result of the introduction of the restraint chairs, the number of hunger strikers fell from a total of 41, on December 15, to just five, with three of the five — including Ahmed Zuhair — being force-fed.

A year later, Zuhair and the other two long-term hunger strikers — Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi, and Tarek Baada, a Yemeni — were still refusing to eat, and were still being subjected to the twice-daily insertion of the tubes into their stomachs, according to a report by imprisoned al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj (released in May 2008), who had embarked on a hunger strike himself. Al-Haj also explained that, “at the end of January [2007] there were at least 42 people on hunger strike.”

Ahmed Zuhair’s legal challenges

Like most long-running stories, the men’s ordeal then slipped off the media’s radar, only resurfacing last October, when Zuhair’s lawyers submitted documents to a federal court in Washington D.C., which, they said, established that their client was subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” In a struggle with the authorities that had been going on for over three years, Zuhair repeatedly tried to resist being force-fed, which led to regular “forced cell extractions” by teams of armored guards, and which were justified, according to Army Col. Bruce Vargo, the commander of the guard force at Guantánamo, on the basis that Zuhair had “a very long history of disciplinary violations and noncompliant, resistant and combative behavior.”

In a subsequent report, on November 28, after his lawyers sought to have him subjected to an independent medical examination, one of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, explained that, although the military alleged that Zuhair weighed 137 pounds and was “in no immediate danger,” he estimated, after a recent visit, that he weighed no more than 100 pounds, and “also appeared to be ill, vomiting repeatedly during meetings” at the prison. “Mr. Zuhair lifted his orange shirt and showed me his chest,” Kassem explained. “It was skeletal.“ He added, “Mr. Zuhair’s legs looked like bones with skin wrapped tight around them.”

The latest twist in Zuhair’s case came on March 18, with a widespread hunger strike raging at Guantánamo once more (involving up to 50 prisoners), when the Obama administration rejected a proposal whereby Zuhair would end his hunger strike if he was moved from the chronic isolation of Camp 6, where prisoners are held in solid-walled, windowless cells for an average of 22 hours a day, to the communal facilities in Camp 4, where prisoners spend most of their time outdoors.

Responding in the government’s court filing, Col. Vargo claimed that Zuhair’s “history of disciplinary infractions” — 80 in the last four months, apparently — made him “ineligible” for Camp 4, and added, as the Associated Press described it, that “agreeing to transfer him would create a ‘very real risk’ that other prisoners will seek similar deals.” “The potential impact on Guantánamo’s security and the threats to the safety of Guantánamo’s staff and camp population cannot be overstated,” Col. Vargo concluded.

No one mentioned that he’d been cleared for release

However, the most extraordinary aspect of Ahmed Zuhair’s plight, which was not mentioned in press reports on Wednesday, is that he was actually cleared for release from Guantánamo, after the latest round of annual reviews — known as the Administrative Review Boards — on December 23, although he was not informed until February 10, and his lawyers were not told until February 16.

This rather makes a mockery of the Guantánamo authorities’ complaints about the “threat” he poses, and the allegations, still cited in news reports, that “US authorities allege that he trained with the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and was a member of an Islamic fighting group in Bosnia in the mid-1990s,” but above all it confirms — as if any confirmation were required — that, in the isolated world of Guantánamo, what counts against the majority of the prisoners is not the supposed rationale for their detention in the first place, which is often nothing more than a distant memory, but their behavior in detention. This might make sense in a conventional prison, where prisoners have been convicted of crimes, and the authorities have a responsibility to maintain order, but in Guantánamo, where few of the current prisoners have even been charged with a crime, and only one man — Ali Hamza al-Bahlul — has been convicted (after a one-sided show trial last November), it is both cruel and unjustifiable.

While this reflects badly on the prison authorities, I believe it also reflects badly on the Obama administration. After two months, the new President has only released one prisoner from Guantánamo: the British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed, whose case established that, if the stakes are high enough — in other words, if you were subjected to extraordinary abuse, whose disclosure could cause enormous embarrassment (or even a call for criminal investigations) on both sides of the Atlantic — you can be fast-tracked to the front of the new administration’s review process.

Send the Saudis home, President Obama

I don’t begrudge Binyam Mohamed his freedom, of course, as it was long overdue, but I’m disappointed that, of the 59 prisoners who have been cleared for release (a quarter of Guantánamo’s current population), not a single man has been freed since Barack Obama took office. I understand that, in many cases, this is because the State Department is still trying to find third countries to re-house men from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured, and that in the cases of 12 Yemenis, this is because the US and Yemeni governments are still struggling to establish a mutually acceptable basis for the return of prisoners. However, in the case of Zuhair, and five other Saudis cleared for release, these explanations are not applicable.

In 2006 and 2007, after the Saudi government established a rehabilitation program that satisfied the Bush administration, 108 Saudi prisoners were repatriated, and although there have, in recent months, been howls of outrage from right-wing commentators, after a handful of these men resurfaced in connection with militant groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the rate of recidivism has been insignificant, and is far outweighed by the program’s success in divesting ex-prisoners of the false notions of jihad encouraged by radical clerics, and in supporting them as they reestablish themselves in Saudi society.

Given the close ties between the US and Saudi governments, the success of the rehabilitation program, and recent suggestions that the Saudi government may take Yemenis from Guantánamo who have family ties to Saudi Arabia, my concluding questions are simple: why, after three and half years on an agonizing hunger strike, has Ahmed Zuhair not been repatriated, to end his torment and to reunite him with his family, and why, in addition, have the other five Saudis — some of whom have been cleared for release for several years — also not been repatriated?

Perhaps the Obama administration needs reminding that another reason the majority of these men were released so swiftly and in such large numbers (which was not the Bush administration’s normal method of operating) was in response to exceptional pressure exerted by the Saudi authorities following the deaths of three men in Guantánamo in June 2006 (two of whom were Saudis), and the death of another (also a Saudi) in May 2007. All these men had been long-term hunger strikers — and the three who died in 2006 had been force-fed until just before their deaths — and, in addition, Mani al-Utaybi, one of those who died in 2006, had been cleared for release since November 2005, although Navy Commander Robert Durand admitted, with a kind of off-hand callousness, that he “did not know whether al-Utaybi had been informed about the transfer decision before he killed himself.”

In Ahmed Zuhair’s case, this danger period — when he could have died before knowing that he had been cleared for release — has now passed, but it remains inexplicable that he continues to be held in conditions that constitute a severe danger to his health, when there is no longer any reason to hold him.

Responding to the government’s filing on Wednesday, Ramzi Kassem stated, “They want to pressure Ahmed to break his hunger strike by continuing to detain him in the excessively harsh environment of Camp 6. Moving Ahmed to Camp 4 to encourage him to cease striking would rob … prison authorities of the sick victory of breaking him.” He might also have added that holding Zuhair — and other cleared prisoners — in Camp 6 makes a mockery of the supposedly “humane” conditions at Guantánamo, which apparently conform to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, according to a recent Pentagon report submitted as part of the new administration’s review of Guantánamo.

For these men, who have never been charged or tried for any crime, and have, moreover, been cleared for release, there is simply no justification for holding them in the isolation of a prison block modeled on a maximum security prison for convicted criminals on the US mainland, instead of transferring them to a block where, after seven years in an abominable experiment that has still not come to an end, they would finally have the opportunity to socialize, to feel the fresh air and to see the sunlight.

This is the least that President Obama should do, but in the case of Ahmed Zuhair and the other cleared Saudis he should go one step further and send them home.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

POSTSCRIPT: Confirming, as so often, that the Pentagon’s information about the prisoners is frequently unreliable, I’ve been informed by Ramzi Kassem that Ahmed is actually in his mid-forties, and was not born in 1973, as the Pentagon stated.

As published on Antiwar.com, the Huffington Post and CounterPunch.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

10 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    I just want to acknowledge that I have read this, though it was very difficult to do so; that I spent the few moments thinking about the twice-daily horror show that punctuates, or is perhaps central, to the existences of these men, and has been for some of them, for years now. It makes me just as sad for the soldiers who have to inflict this on our prisoners. What did you do in the War on Terror, Daddy? Oh, I shoved tubes down hunger strikers noses, not once, but twice, a day, every day, and I was damned good at it. When our leaders, Obama and Biden, say, as they do every chance they get, that they are proud of our men and women in uniform, are they proud of these men, the nasal tube shovers, too, for doing their wretched duty? Or does that just mangle the word proud beyond all capacity and sense?

    It is snowing this morning in New York City. I am going to the dentist. I have been dreading it all week. I will climb in a chair that no one has defecated in. I will be given Novacaine. My dentist and her assistant will both smile at me and sympathize at the sight of the long needle, which will pinch when it enters the gum. Because she is lovely and caring, she will put two gloved fingers over the place of insertion and massage the gum to help ease the pain, and the discomfort will quickly subside. The ordeal, such as it is, will soon be over. I will not have to return this afternoon for another session, or tomorrow, or the next day, and the next…

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Frances,
    Thank you for your response, capturing how disturbing it is that soldiers who thought they would be defending their country are being required to force-feed randomly-seized prisoners whose only crime, as far as we can tell, is that they objected to being imprisoned without charge or trial.
    I was also moved by the contrast you drew between the experiences of the prisoners and your dentist’s appointment.
    Best,
    Andy

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    From the Talking Dog:

    Andy:

    Thank you for that timely and poignant post; we all need to be reminded of the multifarious abuses of not merely our “laws,” but every aspect of so-called civilized humanity that Guantánamo continues to represent with every minute it continues to operate. One activist who has taken on the specific issue of the force-feedings (and their status as unethical in the medical profession) is Dr. David Nicholl, whom I interviewed here: http://thetalkingdog.com/archives2/000511.html

    To me, the post’s key paragraph is this:

    While this reflects badly on the prison authorities, I believe it also reflects badly on the Obama administration. After two months, the new President has only released one prisoner from Guantánamo: the British resident and torture victim Binyam Mohamed, whose case established that, if the stakes are high enough — in other words, if you were subjected to extraordinary abuse, whose disclosure could cause enormous embarrassment (or even a call for criminal investigations) on both sides of the Atlantic — you can be fast-tracked to the front of the new administration’s review process.

    This takes me lo these many years to the very first interview I did with a Guantánamo lawyer, Josh Dratel, then representing David Hicks, interviewed here: http://thetalkingdog.com/archives2/000261.html, who observed the same thing back in 2005:

    Talking Dog: Any further comment with respect to your representation of Mr. Hicks you think our readers should be aware of?

    Joshua Dratel: Of the people released from Guantánamo so far, there seems to be something in common: they are let at out at a critical moment when due process from the American government would have to be provided otherwise. This is quite galling, actually.

    It seems that the Obama Administration has done more than just adopt the Bush Administration’s procedural playbook: it appears to have wholly adopted its sensibilities. None of this is a terrible surprise, as other than replacing Jim Haynes with Jeh Johnson at DOD General Counsel, I am not aware of a single change in the personnel in the GTMO hierarchy (from SecDef Gates, to “Convening Authority” Crawford, on down to SOCOM and the JTF commanders)… so why should anything change?

    Frankly, none of this is even all that shocking — even as Dick Cheney goes around trying to re-stoke fear and loathing of the detainees as the most dangerous terrorists in the world (though the only one even alleged to have shot someone is… Dick Cheney), even as Col. Lawrence Wilkerson publicly disabuses everyone of… everything Dick Cheney said, and insists that all but the 2 dozen or so actual terrorists be released immediately!
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2009/03/18/lawrence-wilkerson-tells-the-truth-about-guantanamo/

    Though not shocking, it is galling. Honestly, I would have had less of a problem with a President John McCain behaving this way, as he did not promise to “close Guantánamo within a year” (though he vaguely suggested it be closed)… McCain continuing the Bush Administration policies would have been par for the course. That the Obama Administration is doing it — for any reason at all — is simply beyond galling. Worse, it is taking it upon itself to try to overstep the courts, insisting that even if courts find other detainees “eligible for release,” that those men may nonetheless be detained at GTMO, potentially for life, if the executive branch decides it’s too inconvenient to release them. This is not “change we can believe in” or the “change” so many of us were voting for.

    The difference, however, is that the Obama Administration has made it clear it is willing to be pressured on these issues. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time we started our pressure cookers, and ended any “benefits of the doubt” or unjustified faith in the good faith of the people making the ongoing decisions.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, TD. My pressure cooker is already stoked, as it happens, but you already know that. I shall keep hammering away at the obvious injustice of it all, but really would appreciate some explanation as to why Zuhair and the other five Saudis — if no one else — have not been sent home yet.
    If anyone wants to fire up a pressure cooker, I’ve thought since the Appeals Court turned down Judge Urbina’s triumphantly constitutional ruling about the Uighurs last October — that they should be re-housed in the US, because no other country would take them — would make a good campaign, especially after Eric Holder hinted, just the other day, that it was a possibility that was being entertained.
    Do the right thing, Eric. The communities in Washington and Tallahassee are waiting:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2008/10/17/guantanamo-uyghurs-resettlement-prospects-skewered-by-justice-department-lies/

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    So I’ve been working on some links, and Anton Vowl, at the British blog The Enemies of Reason, just got back to me with an encouraging message:

    Hello! And I’ve just been reading the website — excellent. Of course I’ve put a link up on the blog.

    One of the things that frustrates me (and motivates me to do my blog) is how human rights abuses such as those perpetrated by the UK and US are either not mentioned, or if they are ever covered, defended as necessary. I find it inhuman that people should be jailed without trial (in Britain) and tortured … most newspapers couldn’t care less, or actively applaud it, citing stories about spectral threats that often don’t even exist. So writing like yours is so important, and I will read much more of it I hope.

    Anton’s site is here: http://enemiesofreason.blogspot.com/

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    My reply:

    Thanks, Anton. As you can tell, I agree with your prognosis wholeheartedly, but what I find interesting, having been a blogger for two years now, is the extent to which, in that time, bloggers have stepped forward to fill the mainstream media’s void — and, as a result, are steadily drawing in readers that the papers are losing. It amazes me that the big boys don’t seem able to grasp this properly.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    And Anton’s reply:

    What amazes me is how editors simply dismiss blogs/twitter etc as ephemeral nonsense, while all the time their readers desert them and they can’t work out why … if they had more nous they’d have more chance — but they’re their own worst enemy!

  8. Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] torture if they are repatriated (as prohibited in the UN Convention Against Torture). However, as I reported in March, six Saudis have been cleared since before Obama came to power, and yet they still languish at [...]

  9. Forgotten: The Second Anniversary Of A Guantánamo Suicide by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] a result of this pressure, only 13 Saudi prisoners remain in Guantánamo, even though, as I reported two months ago, six of these men were “approved for transfer” after multiple military review [...]

  10. 75 Guantánamo Prisoners Cleared For Release; 31 Could Leave Today by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] the Bush administration, there appears to be no good reason for their continued detention, as I explained in an article in March, when six cleared Saudis were held, and before three were released (see here and [...]

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